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Use Science to Reduce Screen Time

Use Science to Reduce Screen Time

New research shows changing your phone to grayscale makes your phone less interesting.

Why it matters: Boring screens get used less.

Quick updates:

  • I appeared on Mike Rowe’s podcast. He’s hilarious, and his voice sounds like it was created in a lab to broadcast to the masses. We had a blast of a conversation. Listen here.
  • Next Friday’s post will be the first for Members only. We’re debuting a new series called Empty The Tank. It reveals an epic, effective workout I’ll be doing every Friday that month. To, yeah, empty the tank and roll into the weekend fitter and more indestructible. I’d like you to join me. (P.S., We’ll scale the workout so anyone can do it, regardless of your age or ability.)
  • Get the Member Launch Special now before it breaks Rule 2 and dies after 5/31.

Now onto today’s topic …

We use our smartphones too much. Everyone knows it. Everyone wishes their screen time was lower (the average American spends three to four hours a day on their phone).

As a solution, we’re given a million different tactics to reduce our screen time. They range from common sense, like keeping the phone in another room, to insane, like locking it in a safe.

We sometimes make excuses when we realize how much time we spend on our phones. Like, “it’s for work.” But research shows most phone pickups have nothing to do with a notification, like getting an email alert.

We’re most likely to grab our phones to distract ourselves. We’re looking for stimulation. An escape from boredom or stress. For example, yes, email is essential for work. But do you really need to check your email every five minutes? Probably not.

Because once you’ve checked your email, you’ll start checking all kinds of other distracting apps.

You’ll find yourself on TikTok or Instagram. Or shopping on Amazon Prime or some app called Temu, which is apparently Amazon Prime shopping on a crystal methamphetamine binge.

And these distractions have consequences. For example, on Monday, the Surgeon General released a 25-page advisory warning about the harms of social media on young people. “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” he wrote.

But it’s of course not just kids. Distracting apps stress adults too. And they vaporize our time, our most precious resource, without us realizing it. No one will look back on their life and wish they’d spent more time flicking through Tweets and TikTok videos.

A science-backed solution

I spoke to Dr. Trevor Kashey, who’s spent the last few years steeped in behavioral science for his practice. He recently had an aha moment while researching how our environment drives our behavior.

“Colors stimulate behavior,” he explained. “Fewer colors stimulate fewer behaviors.” This might seem weird, but think about it:

  • Red apple: Eat it.
  • Grey apple: Don’t eat it.
  • Green light: Go
  • Red light: Stop

And certain colors are more likely to drive behavior than others. Research going back to the 1950s shows that people find brighter colors more stimulating and pleasurable. This is why, for example, slot machines have all sorts of colors and blinking fancy lights. As do Instagram and TikTok and Amazon, and every other app.

Why it matters: “The stuff we see affects what we do,” said Dr. Kashey. “Change what we see, change what we do.”

His aha moment was that changing his phone screen to grayscale would … change what he saw and change what he did. He changed his phone screen to grayscale. As a result, he spent less time on his phone.

I hadn’t heard of this tactic. But it turns out it’s a thing. There’s research behind Dr. Kashey’s scientific intuitive leap.

The new science of grayscale

Dialing back your screen to greyscale effectively makes your screen more boring. As a study in The Social Science Journal put it:

“When individuals look at grayscale digital displays, their attentional system does not process as stimulating of content compared to when they look at colored displays and do not receive the same gratification as a result.”

Those scientists took 161 participants. Roughly half turned their phone to grayscale and kept it that way for about a week. The other half kept their phone in color mode.

The result:

  • The group who turned their phone to grayscale dropped their phone use by roughly 40 minutes.
  • They went from a daily average of 255 minutes down to 217 minutes.

Meantime, the control group saw their screen time climb by 15 minutes.

By random chance, the groups started with different levels of screen time. But the grayscale group saw a massive drop while the control group used their phone more.

The phones became less gratifying and stimulating with color removed from the screen. The slot machine went dark.

The downside, of course, is that darkening your personal slot machine is a bummer. For example, in the study, 20 participants assigned to the grayscale group cheated and turned their phones back to color just a couple of days in. They couldn’t handle it.

Those who stuck it out said the following:

  • “My phone definitely was not as interested in it as usual.”
  • “Grayscale made my phone boring to use.”
  • “It was very boring, and I didn’t want to be on my phone. There was nothing interesting to look at.”
  • “It was really weird not having any colors at all, and at times I would get upset that I had no colors even though I knew there should be colors there. It was hard for me.”
  • (Editor’s note: This one is the best) “Very annoying.”

But many adapted to the grayscale and discovered that their life improved. Those participants said:

  • “It was kinda odd at first, but honestly didn’t bother me as much.”
  • “I considered it a relief from all the color all the time, it was not too bad for me.”
  • “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, I got used to it after a few days.”

The same researcher conducted a follow-up study. Knowing that excess screen time is linked to anxiety, he wanted to see if people would be less anxious after using grayscale. The finding:

  • “Participants who had their phones in grayscale exhibited a significant decrease in problematic smartphone use, anxiety, and screen time.”

How to turn your phone to grayscale

Naturally, Apple has buried the grayscale setting deep in the bowels of your iPhone.

You go to: Setting —> Accessibility —> Display & Text Size — Color Filters —> Switch to On and click Grayscale

Here’s a screen grab video of how to do it.

Note that the video doesn’t show the screen transitioning to gray. This is because Apple doesn’t record screen grab videos in grayscale. Your screen will go to gray once you hit the final tab and click “grayscale.” Here’s steps for you Android users.

Have fun, don’t die, and enjoy the gray.


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